Native Americans, Relations with French

From start to finish (1699–1763), French Louisiana suffered from lack of settlers, persistent shortages of goods for trade, and competition from English traders from Charleston and Georgia. In what is present-day Mississippi, fewer than five hundred farmers, traders, and soldiers huddled mainly near Forts Rosalie (Natchez) and St. Pierre (on the Lower Yazoo). Repeated wars with England (1701–14, 1744–48, 1754–63) diverted French ships and resources. Exportation of deerskins supported Louisiana’s economy, gradually supplanted by growing quantities of tobacco, timber, pitch and tar, indigo, cotton, silk, and rice after black slaves began to arrive (1717–31). French relations with the Indians, ordinarily better than those enjoyed by the Spaniards and English, benefited from a relative lack of racial prejudice and especially from the fact that the French tended to have a greater desire for furs than for land. The exception that proved this rule was the massacre of the French by the Natchez Indians in 1729, after the French tried to put in place a grossly mismanaged plan to confiscate land that the Natchez considered sacred to turn it into tobacco plantations. The French and their Choctaw, Chakchuima, and Tunica allies crushed and scattered the Natchez and their Koroa and Yazoo supporters, but the plantation scheme was aborted.

The French initially wanted friendly relations with all the tribes. In addition to deerskins, the colonists, facing starvation during the first two decades, needed Indian-produced food. Furthermore, the Indians far outnumbered the French in the Lower Mississippi Valley, though the number of Indians declined precipitously from sixty-seven thousand in 1700 to twenty-two thousand in 1750, primarily as a consequence of smallpox and other European diseases. The dominant tribes in Mississippi proper in 1725 were the Natchez (population around seventeen hundred), soon obliterated or fleeing to the Chickasaw and Upper Creek; the Chickasaw (population around thirty-five hundred), mainly in present-day Union and Pontotoc Counties in the north; and the Choctaw (around fourteen thousand), located in some fifty villages in the Pearl, Pascagoula, and Tombigbee watersheds. By 1705, however, the peace policy had broken down, and for the remainder of their time in Louisiana, the French and the Choctaw almost continuously promoted war against the Chickasaw.

The reasons became obvious. English traders, the bane of the French, persistently established themselves among the Chickasaw, although some Chickasaw approached the French whenever English trade faltered. Moreover, the Choctaw and Chickasaw were perennial foes despite their common origin. The English use of their allies, including the Chickasaw, to capture Choctaw and sell them into slavery stoked Choctaw hatred of the Chickasaw even after the English abandoned slaving expeditions following the Yamassee War (1715–17). The French, moreover, understood almost immediately that they needed Choctaw backing if Louisiana were to survive. Keeping the Choctaw meant fighting the Chickasaw to prevent English traders from enticing the Choctaw. The French at times encouraged quarrels among the Choctaw, notably during the Choctaw Civil War (1747–50) as a means of maintaining leverage and promoting Choctaw dependency. Last but certainly not least, hostile Chickasaw endangered Louisiana’s communications with posts in Illinois and Canada.

The French presence profoundly affected the tribes. Western diseases, introduced by Hernando de Soto’s expedition in the sixteenth century, devastated the Indians throughout the French period until survivors’ immunities began to raise population levels slowly after around 1750. The deerskin trade generated changes at many levels. When the French appeared, deer were plentiful because disease and slave raiding had reduced the human population. The French also paid better than the English for the skins of smaller deer from the pine forests of the Choctaw country. In roughly four generations the Indians moved from the Stone Age to the Iron Age because of Western goods on which they grew to depend. They wanted woolen (limbourg) and cotton cloth (preferable to rawhide in Mississippi’s climate); French-made lightweight muskets, suitable for hunting; powder and bullets; metal kettles, axes, hoes, and knives; glass beads, silver single-shell necklaces, combs, mirrors, pipes, and buttons; tiny bells for leggings; and after midcentury, tafia, a cheap rum.

Commerce, a relatively unimportant activity among Indian tribes devoted to hunting, gathering, and agriculture (notably the Choctaw), inexorably transformed these societies. The European market economy, featuring prices governed by supply and demand, cost accounting, and unlimited personal gain as its motive, was alien to Indian concepts. Barter based on traditional “just price” values was familiar; variable prices reflecting production levels or shipping costs were not and struck the Indians as unfair or thievery. Furthermore, agreeing to trade involved a friendship confirmed by gifts. If the French wanted to trade and use Indian lands, the Indians expected gifts. Furthermore, any Indian chief was expected to be generous in sharing his gifts with the members of his tribes. The French resented what they perceived as polite extortion but were compelled to allocate increasing sums of scarce government money for gifts for an annual ceremony with all the chiefs as a means of continuing trade, affirming the rejection of the English, or fighting the Chickasaw. The only saving grace was that Choctaw demand for European goods, while growing slowly, was fairly inelastic—that is, it was confined to a limited quantity of quality items. Thus, the French could—barely—supply Choctaw demand and thus keep them loyal.

To regularize matters, the French tried but failed to impose a European-style hierarchical order on the Choctaw by appointing a head chief. Choctaw organization, a tangle of traditional and family relationships, baffled the Europeans. The new “head chief” acquired no real authority, and gift distribution created an elite of chiefs, subchiefs, and their relatives that alienated large numbers of poor warriors. That the chiefs had always controlled the distribution of guns and used it to preserve their leverage only made matters worse. Factions formed, and some Choctaw inevitably turned to the English. The ambitious and wily Chief Red Shoes spent a decade alternately instigating pro-French or pro-English factions until he was assassinated in 1747 by a warrior who collected a French scalp bounty.

Other exploitative methods the French used included slavery, alcohol, and credit. The French concluded early that Indian enslavement was unpromising and instead turned to importing black slaves. By 1763 the Lower Mississippi Valley had only one hundred Indian slaves along with five thousand black slaves and two hundred mulattos. The English used alcohol and credit liberally to expand Indian demand, whereas the French used both reluctantly, partly because with short supplies they did not need to increase demand. French administrators and especially priests expressed regret over the ravages of alcohol, which included the point that drunken Indians made unreliable allies or fighters. Credit also was problematic, for Indians did not understand why whites could be so demanding regarding prompt repayment. A quarrel over a debt, in fact, ignited a dangerous 1722 uprising by the Natchez. The French began offering scalp bounties by the 1720s while fighting the Chickasaw. The lure of bounties tended over time to turn many Choctaw warriors into mercenaries, altering warfare from contests of pride and honor to something resembling a commercial enterprise carried on regardless of winter or planting or harvesting. Warfare also cost hunters time and safety, thus damaging the deerskin trade.

Other, less obvious, changes ensued. The deerskin trade gravely damaged Choctaw agriculture. Women had controlled the land and cultivation; consequently, their social status declined despite employment as skilled dressers of deerskins. Guns made hunting a solitary or small-group enterprise not involving a large band surrounding game for a collective kill. Sexual relations were affected when French traders, settlers, or soldiers, lacking white female companionship, acquired Indian wives, concubines, or lovers. A growing mixed-race component confused traditional family ties and weakened tribal authority and values. Missionaries—few in number and almost wholly unsuccessful in making converts—deplored the aborting of mixed-race babies and the disorder introduced in both French and Indian society by clashing sexual mores. Furthermore, contrasting conceptions of honor, justice, and vengeance muddied negotiations about why and how to wage war.

The arrival of Europeans forced the Indians to adapt to more unpredictability in their lives. Tradition and yearly cycles gave way to out-of-season activities using implements and technology that could alter the environment. The gun alone dramatically affected the size of Indian and animal populations as well as the extent and density of the woodlands and the amount of land needed for agriculture.

Nevertheless, the Choctaw avoided simple subordination to the French, though smaller Mississippi tribes had less success in doing so. There were too few French; intratribal divisions and traditions frustrated their attempts to impose a controllable organization; and above all, the presence of the English handed the Choctaw an opportunity to pit foreigners against each other. The Choctaw apparently did not fully grasp that when the French era ended in 1762–63, leaving only the English east of the Mississippi, the prospects of avoiding dependency had suffered a mortal wound.

Further Reading

  • Patricia Galloway, Journal of Mississippi History 4 (1982)
  • Jesse O. McKee and John A. Schlenker, The Choctaw: Cultural Evolution of a Native North American Tribe (1980)
  • William C. Sturtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 4, History of Indian-White Relations, ed. Wilcombe E. Washburn (1988)
  • Daniel H. Usner Jr., American Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley: Social and Economic Histories (1988)
  • Daniel H. Usner Jr., Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783 (1992)
  • Daniel H. Usner Jr., Proceedings of the 10th Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society, April 12–14, 1984 (1985)
  • Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistance, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (1983)
  • Patricia Dillon Woods, French-Indian Relations on the Southern Frontier (1980)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Native Americans, Relations with French
  • Author
  • Keywords Native Americans, Relations, French
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 10, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 2, 2018